Learning and teaching consent with a parrot

There is a new creature living in my house. She communicates through raised and sleek feathers, eye-pinning, a whole range of chuckles, beeps and squawks (at the moment she’s sounding weirdly like R2-D2). She has a beak capable of biting off chunks of wood. Sometimes I jokingly call her a dinosaur or an alien as a way of making sense of her strangeness, but she is a creature of earth and sky and the present day and I feel uncomfortable suggesting that she is of a different time or space. The problem lies with me and with my lack of familiarity.

So, a bit about her: she’s a parrot, a Bronze Wing Pionus to be precise. She’s approaching her first birthday and I’ve had her for three months. Before I got her, she was kept with other young Bronze Wings so hopefully she knows she’s a bird rather than being so imprinted on humans it will cause her problems when she hits sexual maturity.

It’s a very different experience from dealing with dogs or rats or cats or horses or pretty much any other animal I’ve looked after. I am used to soft fur and touch as comfort. I am used to space-invading snuggles, sleepy mammals piled up on top of each other so you can barely tell where each animal ends and another begins. I am used to being able to pick up and/or easily handle most of these animals. Leia will not tolerate these casual liberties. She’s fully flighted, has never been clipped, and can easily choose to avoid me if she wishes. I am trying to show her that I will listen to her and respect her wishes so she can tell me if she’s unhappy or doesn’t want to do something without resorting to biting. Her ancestors have not been selectively bred for tameness and compliance. She is not hardwired to accept dominance or hierarchy; instead there is flock, and careful, subtle, shifting negotiations within the flock.

We have spent much of the past three months learning about each other and how to understand what the other is trying to communicate. In a way it is an experiment, but only in the same way that all my relationships are experiments. I’ve found a lot of my understanding about consent to be applicable to this wild and clever creature.

My feelings do not override her feelings
I loved Leia before I ever met her. Her breeder sent me regular photos and updates about her. I saw her as a tiny, naked baby; as a downy youngster growing her wing feathers; at weaning; with her parents and clutchmates. I learnt what toys she liked and made sure I got her some. I scoured the internet for a suitable cage and, dismayed at how small and high the majority are, ended up ordered a custom made cage. I went into this knowing the commitment I was making to a bird that might hate me, try to attack me and who I may never touch. I was enchanted anyway.

Leia stepped out of the box she was transported in and erupted into flight. I am much smaller than her breeder. I have darker skin and my voice is different and my movements are different and, horrors, I wear glasses. I am a stranger to her and she needed time to work out if she was willing to trust me. I might have loved her but she had no idea who I was and whether I was an acceptable flock member. I had to let her learn about me on her terms. I couldn’t let my feelings override her autonomy. Forcing my presence on her would have been counterproductive, making me into a thing to be feared and avoided.

She was interested in me and wanted to watch what I was doing. She wanted to sit on her stand on my desk and watch me. She was happy to accept treats and toys from my hands. I had to take things at her pace. It took her about three weeks to accept a headscratch from me.

A “yes” is only as meaningful as a “no”
I ask Leia is she wants a headscratch by making a scratch motion with my fingers above her head, within her sight and crucially, not touching her. If she doesn’t want a headscratch, she’ll either beak my fingers or move away. If she does want a headscratch, she’ll bow her head and fluff up her head feathers. I’m trying to show her that I’ll respect her “no” – that she can tell me “no” and I won’t ignore it and do the thing anyway. I hope to teach her that she doesn’t have to reinforce her “no” with a bite or, worse, feel she has to go straight for the bite as that’s the only thing I’ll understand.

However, Leia sometimes beaks my fingers while I’m scratching her and these seem to have a variety of meanings. I’m now trying to work out if her grabbing my fingers with her beak is a “no, not now”, a “yes, and I’m going to direct you to a particularly itchy spot”, a “stop, I’ve had enough”, a “stop, that was the wrong spot” or her preening me in return. We’re still working out the complexities of that bit of communication. She’s usually pretty gentle even when telling me to stop, and I think that’s because she doesn’t feel the need to go harder. She trusts that I’ll listen.

Consent is everyday
Consent isn’t just about the big things like medical interventions or sex. Asking for, receiving or being denied consent is present in so many of our interactions. I do it when I check with a student if it’s alright to forward information on to someone else, check with a child whether they’d prefer a hug, handshake or something else, and give my students the information they need to make an informed choice about how they engage with difficult, upsetting material. Living with Leia is a masterclass in making these negotiations explicit and visible.

Leia now sits on my knee while I work, and increasingly often hauls herself up my sleeve so she can sit on my shoulder. She has begun to step up onto my arm when she feels like it, but as she steps up nicely onto a rope perch I see no reason to push it. I’ve taught her to target a (chop)stick. We have several headscratching sessions a day, and she preens my hair and has tried to preen my eyelashes with extraordinary gentleness. We are working out how to have contact calls so she knows I’m around even if she can’t see me. She appears to have taught me to retrieve by throwing her foot toys off my desk and looking expectantly at me. Last night I lay on the floor to read, and for part of this I had a small parrot wandering around on my back.

It’s challenging trying to communicate across such a species barrier. She can probably see in UV, and probably uses her feathers and light to communicate in ways I am literally blind to. I am probably just as challenging for her to read, with my mammal ways and glasses covering my eyes and fabric coverings. We are muddling our way through, and beginning to make sense of each other.

How to improve Samaritans Radar

I’m on my way out of the house so can’t write why I think the new Samaritans app, Samaritans Radar, is a terrible idea; instead, I suggest reading what these people have already written about it.

Another Angry Woman: I do not consent to #SamaritansRadar
Queer Blue Water: Email to Samaritans about Radar
Latent Existence: Samaritans Radar and Twitter’s Public Problem
Jon Mendel: Problems with Samaritans Radar
Jon Mendal has also written two posts discussing Samaritans Radar from a research ethics point of view: post 1 and post 2
Joey McK: Why the Samaritans’ Radar is bone stupid

Here’s a really easy way this whole mess could have been avoided: trusted lists.

You download the app. It shows you which of the people you follow you AND who follow you back have also downloaded the app.

You can then send a request. Maybe something like this: “Hi, I noticed you use Samaritans Radar. I want to be able to support you if I can so feel free to add me to your trusted list”

Or you can request someone to be on your trusted list: “Hi, I noticed you use Samaritans Radar. I’m building my support network on here and would like to add you to it”.

Both users have to agree to this; for example, I can’t add someone to my trusted list if they don’t agree, and no one can add me to their trusted list unless I agree. These relationships don’t have to be reciprocal; there are lots of reasons why someone might not be able to offer support to someone in mental distress (for example, their own mental health issues – it’s really difficult to support someone who’s severely depressed when you’re severely depressed yourself).

You can also remove someone from your trusted list or remove yourself from someone’s trusted list. I’d be inclined for this not to be flagged up.

Email alerts then get sent out to people on the trusted list. Users can also add things to their list of “stuff to be flagged” so they don’t have to be explicit about their mental health on an account that their employer or colleagues follow.

This literally took about five minutes to think about and ten minutes to write. It’s not hard to think of ways you can protect people who are at risk of twitter abuse.

In which I get a new rucksack and am overexcited about it

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

This term I’ve been teaching in London. As I still live in Nottingham, this has required me to hoof myself down to London for a 10am class. Thanks to some kind friends who’ve let me stay on their mattresses, airbeds, beanbags and sofas, I’ve managed to all but avoid the expensive 6:30am train (and accompanying horribly early alarm). However, I’ve had to carry a lot of stuff around me and it was therefore with dismay that I noticed my faithful rucksack’s shoulderstrap coming off one morning on the tube. I’ve had that rucksack since I started my MA in 2006 and it’s been with me through my MA and PhD, two universities, three departments, trips to India and Egypt, many conferences and numerous visits to friends and family all over the country so I suppose it’s earned its retirement.

However, this left me without a rucksack.

A friend suggested Osprey and I splurged on the Osprey Momentum 30. This is totally Sam Vimes’ Theory of Economic Injustice – I am hard on my bags, and at the moment I’m being paid. It therefore makes sense to spend money on something that will last (I hope) than buying a cheap bag that will fall apart when I load it up with library books, leak on library books/my laptop or be uncomfortable to carry or cycle with.

This review is of an older and slightly bigger model but I was impressed by the thoughtful design and quality. This review and this review are both of the model I went with. The photo below is of all the stuff I routinely carry with me.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

Going from left to right we have a hardback book (unusually, only one), my university ID cards, my laptop and charger, a shirt, assorted highlighters, the grey notebook I use to keep my conference notes together, my wallet and keys, my filofax, bike lights, shower soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, forks and paracetamol. I’d usually also have PJ bottoms and underwear with me but you get the idea.

The Momentum 30 copes admirably with all this and more – I even got my softbound thesis in there as well as everything else and it was great not to have to lug that around in a carrier bag. The pockets are spacious enough to be useful; I use one of the side pockets as a washbag and can easily fit shower soap, moisturiser and facewash in there. So many pockets means that I can use them for different things and as a result, no one has to know that I’m taking my PJs and toothbrush into work as I won’t accidentally pull them out along with my laptop charger[1]. The small zipped pocket in the main compartment is big enough to fit keys, my wallet, pens and my passport but small enough that these don’t get lost among the other stuff.

I live in an area where cycling is an everyday thing. While I’ve seen (and admired) a proper Dutch cargo bike chained up, I’ve seen more bikes with interesting cargo-carrying modifications – shopping baskets are a popular addition or, as in this fine example, a washing up bowl. I’ve not been doing my cycling commute much recently but this bag did very well on a trip to the shops – it comfortably held 4 litres of laundry liquid and fabric conditioner as well as my food shopping. The side straps can be tightened to make the bag more compact and it means you don’t have the bag shifting weight while cycling.

The bag can also be used for hand luggage on planes and I easily fitted nearly a week’s worth of clothes as well as laptop, book etc when I visited my partner recently.

About the only thing I’m not sold on is the laptop compartment against my back; it’s a bit big for my laptop so more a personal preference than a design flaw. Instead, my laptop goes into the document pocket in the main compartment and I use the laptop compartment to keep shirts flat when travelling. It would also be nice to have some way of tucking loose straps – I’ll probably make some ties or find clips but the lack of these seems odd in an otherwise thoughtfully designed bag.

It’s made me think about how things can be so much easier with the right tools and equipment. This term has been stressful enough as it is – among other things, I’ve been working three jobs (four if you count monthly invigilation), organising a module and working out the logistics of travel – and I simply don’t want to have to think about how I’m going to transport my stuff or for how long I can comfortably carry it or the chances of my stuff getting damaged or left behind somewhere. It’s been so nice to have room to keep some things in this bag permanently (and therefore not risk forgetting them) and it’s made my crash course in survival skills for the young academic that much easier.

As someone who cares for the environment, is broadly anti-capitalist and is against buying stuff for the sake of it, I am trying to surround myself with things that are good at what they do and which will last. I don’t want to keep having to replace things that wear out too soon – I want to be able to get something and be confident that it will be usable in 10 years or 20 years or longer. Hopefully this bag will be one of them.

[1]It pains me slightly that my life has become one where I consider not pulling out a toothbrush in front of my students/colleagues to be a minor triumph, and yet here we are.

Edinburgh post!

I am currently at the Edinburgh Fringe performing in Lashings of Ginger Beer Time’s production of Fanny Whittington. This is my first ever acting (deemed too rubbish for the school play in secondary school and I’m not sure being a tree in a primary school assembly counts) and I’m surprised by how much I’m enjoying it! My thesis is also making its acting debut as the script calls for a Really Big Book.

Today I saw two other acts. First up was Job Seekers Anonymous by Sh!t Theatre. Becca and Louise – or “Blouise” – are a confident duo of the “laugh because otherwise you’d cry” school of comedy. JSA was, by turns, funny, frustrated and despairing. Because being young and and un(der)employed and skint[1] and trying really hard to navigate the baffling maze of employment, internships, benefits and what you want from life is pretty rubbish. The act did what it said on the tin but what made it enjoyable was Blouise’s energetic delivery of visual metaphors, statistics, and experiences.

I’m not totally sure it worked as a one hour act – there was a bit in the middle where I thought it lost some of its energy and focus – but on the whole, it did a good job of outlining the various interlocking factors that make being un(der)employed so dispiriting and difficult to break out of.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang was the surprise of the evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect – the description of “‘Carry On…’ meets Hilary Mantel” wasn’t too promising and I expected some kind of “ooo Matron” campery. However, I was blown away.

The stage was simply set with a minimum of props – a panel cut out in the shape of the supports for a stained glass window, fallen pillars and two boxes. Over the course of the play, the pillars are righted and candles placed upon them.

John Burrows and David Brett both play a range of characters based in a monastery at the time of the Reformation, from the lowly Brothers Adam and Stephan, the Abbott, other monks, the Abbott’s brother, his wife, her various maidservants, and Dr Layton, the dreaded representative of Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General. I was struck by their physicality and how they signalled the different characters they were inhabiting using nothing but body language, gestures and posture. I also enjoyed the way they moved around the stage, using its space in an agile and imaginative way.

The play moves through farce, camp comedy, sung Latin chants and heartbreak. I was convulsing with laughter at the use of the Te Deum and by the end, felt I’d been on an emotional journey. No one-note comedy, this was a meditation on mistakes, regrets, devotion, loss, love, and the crumbling of everything familiar and dear to the characters.

It’s at a rather specialised nexus of Catholicism, gay stuff, and history so I’m not sure how far its appeal extends, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Tomorrow I hope to see the intriguingly named Ladyboner

Also, in the midst of this, I sent off my thesis corrections. The end (the proper end) might just be in sight.

[1] I admit, part of the reason I saw these two plays was because they’re at the same venue we’re performing at and I could get in for free with my performer’s pass.

My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

life after thesis submission

My PhD supervisor told me to have a break after submitting so I did. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been to Death: a self-portrait at the Wellcome Collection, London’s Diversity Choir’s performance of Duruflé’s Requiem, the Transpose: Cinematic Edition and, yesterday, June Purvis’ public lecture on “The Struggle For Women’s Suffrage In Britain, 1865-1928”. All of these events were fascinating in their different ways and it was nice to remind myself that I have interests outside my thesis.

I also came down with a bad cold because my Faustian pacts of “please body, just let me get through this term/chapter/thesis and then you can be as ill as you want” eventually caught up with me – although more prosaically, my terrible pre-submission diet of peanuts, pumpkin seeds and cheese sandwiches might have had something to do with it.

I have a viva date and will be hurling myself into viva preparation soon, but at the moment I’m writing a talk I’m going to give on Monday about trans* media representation. It’s my first 45ish minute presentation so I’m a little nervous, but luckily there’s a lot I can talk about and I’m having fun planning the structure and content. I’m planning to end up at a place where I can talk about trans* people representing themselves in film, music and journalism – there are some brilliant projects out there like My Genderation and META magazine – although there are still massive problems with the way trans* people are reported in the mainstream press.

It’s at 7pm on Monday 11th March in the Portland building, University of Nottingham – do come if you can make it.

Student life and pets

I’m currently wading through critical theory but I read this article by a student who was lonely so they bought a kitten and I’m pretty cross.

Rats sleeping in a chicken feeder

Photo by K Gupta

Firstly, I’ve grown up around animals. My parents both grew up with pets and our family got our first dog when I was three. Apart from one horrible week where none of us coped, we have always had at least one dog since. We’ve also had fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, gerbils and stick insects. I’ve worked at a vet’s boarding kennels and cattery, and have also worked a bit with horses.

At the moment I have five rats who live in what my mum has affectionately dubbed “the Rat Palace” and enjoy a life of luxury. I believe that animals are good for us – they provide companionship and entertainment and relaxation.

However, they’re also a commitment and I don’t think the article really addresses this.

Most degrees last between three and four years. Lots of animals live longer than this and in the case of cats, as much as 15-18 years. What’s going to happen to the cat after you graduate? Animal rescues are already full – are you going to contribute to the problem? Bear in mind that if you adopt an animal from a shelter, it may have already experienced upheaval and abandonment.

Pets can be expensive. You can get yourself into a nice routine of budgeting for food and bedding, shopping around for the best deal – but your pet can always get ill or get injured and vet fees are expensive. Somehow, animals always pick the worst possible moment to get sick. You probably won’t be eligible for PDSA vet care. You might choose to get pet insurance but read the terms and conditions carefully – alternatively, some people choose to put away some money every month into a vet fund. If you’re already struggling with money and living off beans and toast, please think very very hard about getting a pet.

Many students will move house at least once during the course of their degrees and finding a landlord who allows pets can be tricky, especially if you have a dog or cat. I’ve always checked if they’re alright with “small caged pets”. Some people just don’t tell their landlord but you’ve got to ask yourself whether it’s worth the stress, hassle and risk of losing your deposit. It can also be difficult if you want to spend the holidays with parents. If they have pets, your animals might have to be carefully introduced and you’ll have to hope that they all get on. Your parents’ house might not be suitable for a dog or cat (on a main road, allergic family members, no garden etc). If you have caged pets, you either have to work out how you’ll transport the cage or set up another, holiday cage at your parent’s home.

Please think very carefully about getting a “house pet”. It’s great if all your housemates are equally enthusiastic but who pays vet bills? who looks after the pet during the holidays? who does the not-very-fun stuff like cleaning out cages or litter trays? what happens to the animal when you stop living together? what happens if you disagree on an aspect of its care?

Student loneliness is a problem – at one point, I had three contact hours a week as an undergraduate – but there’s more to owning a pet than just wanting one. There was no way I could have had a pet when I was an undergraduate; my life was just too unsettled and I couldn’t have cared for it properly. If you’re desperate to have some contact with animals and you have some experience of caring for them, you could always offer dog walking or pet sitting services, volunteer in a shelter or even temporarily foster an animal. There are much better ways of dealing with student loneliness than going out and buying a kitten.

The organised(ish) PhD researcher

Recently I was in a cafe with a friend who is just starting her PhD. Talk turned to what we were lugging around in our bags: the usual annotated journal articles, academic books, phone, keys, wallet, railcard, pens, notepads…and my organiser. I’m one of those sad people who still uses a paper organiser. To add to that, it’s also a filofax. I am either so very cool no one else recognises my coolness (yet) or I am just a bit of a loser.

I like writing on paper for several reasons. A diary is harder to lose, my style of scribbling in diaries doesn’t lend itself easily to electronic means, I find actually writing something helps me remember it, I like my handwriting and pens and the smooth trail of ink over paper. I don’t like feeling dependent on a phone for all my needs and already feel somewhat over-reliant on it. Laptops are often more cumbersome and heavier than I want to carry around with me all day, a tablet is prohibitively expensive and ultimately, I like having something that doesn’t run on batteries and therefore won’t inconveniently die on me and force me to hunt around for a coffee shop that has a plug point I can borrow.

I like using a filofax in particular because of its flexibility. I can add more stuff, shift the diary from a Jan-Dec to a Sept-July format, rearrange bits within it, and create new sections if I need them. I am also ridiculously fussy about the diaries I use, and when I bought a bound diary each year I would get slightly obsessional about finding exactly the right kind of diary – week to two pages, either faintly ruled or unruled paper, not-hideous fonts, decent quality paper. While the filofax diary inserts aren’t perfect they are at least consistent.

The set-up I have at the moment:

  • a page with my name, address and contact details
  • a section for my to-do lists
  • a section for my diary
  • a section of plain and lined paper for general notes
  • a section of paper for thesis notes
  • two spare sections that I can use for something if necessary
  • plastic pocket, card holder and map at the back

filofax coverfilofax inside

I live in a household of two medical doctors and two academics so we have a good stash of stationery! Perhaps appropriately (or not at all appropriately, depending on your sense of humour), Aricept is used to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. And therefore, they give out post-it notes to help doctors remember things (like their brand).

filofaxstuff-sm

I have a front card with my name, permanent address, personal email and phone number. I don’t like the front sheet that comes with filofax organisers as it’s too much detail that I don’t particularly want to share. I made the dividers out of card then laminated them so they’re hopefully durable enough to last.

filofaxnotes-sm

This is the first page in my general notes section and is my “you’re leaving the house in 15 minutes, have you got everything you need?” list. Trust me, it’s not good to have your laptop in one county and your laptop’s charger in another!

filofaxthesis-sm

This is the first page of the thesis notes section, complete with scribbly 4am writing. I try not to take my work to bed with me, but sometimes it happens.

You don’t get to see my diary because there’s too much personal stuff in there! I use it to keep track of where I’m supposed to be when – so meetings, research seminars, my various bits of paid work and deadlines as well as meeting up for coffee, reminders to buy cereal, eye appointments and so on. When I’m very busy it’s a relief to be able to write these down and not worry about forgetting them. The downside is that unless I write these down, I forget them.

My organiser is pretty minimalistic compared to some – if you want a look at how other people organise their things, I recommend looking at Philofaxy and particularly their regular Reader Under the Spotlight profiles.

So let’s sing while we still have time…

On Saturday night I was singing in the University Choir, performing Mahler’s 2nd symphony. There’s a review up by Professor Stephen Mumford in which he notes that “music especially gives us access to the sublime”. As a singer and performer of music I won’t argue with that; there is something especially transcendental about being one voice among many, knowing your part perfectly and combining to create a glorious, complex sound.

However, I’ve also found singing a particularly rewarding experience as a PhD researcher. We were singing in the fifth movement of Mahler’s second symphony which is less than 15 minutes of actual singing, but we still rehearsed for at least two hours a week and sometimes closer to five hours. The intense focus reminded me of an extreme form of close reading, where engagement with the text is all there is and everything else ceases to be. Every rehearsal brought something new; a different nuance to be coaxed out of the text through a diminuendo, a different shade of meaning expressed through a quaver rest.

Singing requires a different kind of concentration – you can’t be distracted or only half pay attention to the words and music you’re singing. It requires all of my focus and attention, yet I find it calls for a different kind of focus and attention than my PhD demands. Ultimately, it’s a communal concentration – I am focused on my score, the person conducting, blending my voice with the other people singing my part, and listening to what the other parts are doing. It’s very different from the often intensely solitary work of my PhD. I also find it gives me permission for switch off from PhD work without feeling guilty or lazy; and in fact, more often than not, I find myself refreshed by the change and ready to get back to work.

As well as a relationship with the rest of the choir, singing also creates a relationship between the singer and the conductor. As part of the choir, I was struck by the sense of connection Jonathan Tilbrook established with us. He’s an expressive conductor with eloquent, fluid gestures – during the performance I was mesmerised by his fluent conducting of the orchestra. Jonathan encourages a suppleness and responsiveness; when he was conducting us, he, quite literally, held the power of an 140-strong choir in his hands and could ask for ppp or fff with one gesture. We were there at his fingertips, our voices ready to soar or quieten to almost a whisper if he asked for it. While obviously you can’t abdicate all responsibility and expect the conductor to indicate every change in dynamic, Jonathan clearly knew what guidance we would find helpful. My worries about a difficult entry melted away as I realised that he would tell us when to come in. Again, this is different from the PhD experience of uncertainty. One of the things I was unconsciously struggling with was the responsibility and pressure of becoming the expert in my area. It was with a feeling of relief that I could relinquish control and trust someone else to guide me for at least a few hours.

I often feel a sense of disconnection from my body for a number of reasons, and this blog isn’t the place to go into detail. As a researcher, I find myself neglecting it – sleep? eat? but I’m too busy! – and resenting its demands. Singing, however, is one of the most physical things I do. Far from being something non-physical, singing is an embodied act. When you sing, your body becomes an exquisitely sensitive, expressive instrument. You support the sound with your diaphragm and abdominal muscles; you produce different sounds through the complex interaction of your vocal cords, the space inside your mouth, your tongue, your soft palate, your lips. As a linguist I knew exactly what the chorusmaster meant when he asked for open vowels, closed vowels, more schwa (and oh, how interestingly different from my experiences singing church Latin!). You have to be relaxed to produce a clear sound; tension will affect your tone. Simultaneously, you have to be aware of your posture; you can’t sing when if you’re hunched up or slouching. It’s a complex balance that requires body awareness. I’m fascinated by how our physical practices shape our bodies and how you can read a history in someone’s skin and muscles. It’s very satisfying to allow something I love so much to shape me, carve me into something that makes me an even better singer. And, in doing so, it challenges the Cartesian dualism that allows me to conceptualise a mind-body split. What singing does is merge the two, gently reproaching me for even thinking of my body as mere transport for my mind.

As well as offering a useful counterpoint for my life as a PhD researcher, this involvement with music also makes me a better teacher. On Friday I was teaching on metaphor. One of the exercises my students had to do was slot different words into some constructions, such as A is the B of C and A is like B to make metaphors. We’d then discuss the target domain (what you’re trying to talk about) and the source domain (the ideas you’re drawing on to talk about it), and discuss the features of the source domain that made the metaphor work. For some reason, my students really liked “music” as a source domain, coming up with things like “patience is the music of love”. When I asked them what made that particular metaphor work, they said things like “music is beautiful” and “music makes me feel happy”. I tried to encourage them to think about other features of music that might disrupt the neatness of the metaphor: that it can be complicated, that looking at a full orchestral score can be overwhelming, that learning to play an instrument often involves frustration and creating some truly awful noises, that making something look effortless and graceful requires hard work. I could explore that metaphor more fully with my students because I do have this musical background, and hopefully enrich their understanding and learning experience.

I’ve never been the kind of person who can relax by watching TV or films. Sometimes the PhD makes reading seem more of a chore than something you do to escape it. But in singing, I find something that is active and engaging enough to be stimulating, yet different enough from work to be relaxing. It’s a delicate balance between it being challenging enough to not get boring and it becoming too much like more work – I’ve never got on well with music exams. But music, and singing in particular, is such an important thing to have in my life and I’m lucky to be in a university community that encourages my involvement.